Cycling the Spiti valley – Nako to Manali

Cycling from the desolate and barren high-altitude Spittian desert to the most popular hill station in Himachal Pradesh

The hardest part about Spiti is reaching there. It took us a 22-hour bus ride to get to Rekong Peo. For the sake of acclimatization we had planned the night stay at Kalpa, which is not so far from there, but much higher. And also much nicer. Having had our fill with the HPTDC’s ‘ordinary’ buses, especially given the quantum of our luggage, we choose to just hire a jeep the next day to take us up to Nako (technically still in Kinnaur) – another five odd hour drive.

Nako to Manali cycling route map

Nako to Manali cycling route map

 

Nako to Manali cycle ride elevation profile

Nako to Manali cycle ride elevation profile

In Nako we decided to stay an extra day for altitude acclimatization and for general setting up – bikes needed to be reassembled, washed, lubed and tested. A quick short ride up to the Mulling nullah the next day, reminded us what we had in store for us in the coming days.

Once we finally started riding with our fully laden pannier bags, it was slow going in the beginning. Our systems were still getting used to all the extra weight and the relative lack of oxygen – Nako is at 3600 meters above sea level. The boulder and gravel track up the Mulling nullah, with the ‘Shooting rocks’ warning did not do much to help speed things up.

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Wide open desolate and barren high-altitude Spittian desert in Himachal Pradesh

As if to welcome us with a fair warning for what was ahead Rajan had his first puncture shortly afterwards. We’d barely start riding after fixing a puncture, and he had another. Over the next two days he had close to ten punctures. All of them, save one, in the same tyre. We inspected the wheel setup very carefully, multiple times. The only conclusion we could reasonably draw was that there was something wrong with the tyre – an almost unused Decathlon 700c tyre. Though much wider than a regular road/hybrid tyre, perhaps it was not designed to take on such harsh treatment. Or perhaps there was a manufacturing defect. Interestingly a narrower Bontrager on the rear end managed to hold up much better.

Because of all the puncture mending on the roadside we lost much time and could not keep to the planned schedule. It started to get dark before we could reach Tabo. Not wanting to ride in the dark, we decided to camp in Lari. The best campground we could find in failing light was in the campus of a horse breeding farm. The horses had been moved for the summer to a much higher ground, so the facility felt abandoned and uninhabited, except for a few daily wagers working on some construction project. Pokhar, a Nepalese laborer who was staying on the site, offered to cook for us while we were busy setting up camp and fetching water.

The next day too we were greeted by a spate of punctures. And once again we could not get to our planned destination – Kaza. We ended up searching for a place to stay in Schiling. Dolma Guest House, the only place to stay in that area, was not accepting guests at this time, the young lady told us. They were drying their Barley (Jaun in Hindi and Neh in Spitian) for the winter, and the water from the ‘bath’ room flows into the area where the barley is laid out to dry. Once we offered not to have a bath, she welcomed us and was very hospitable. Interestingly though, when the owner, a wonderful man called Dorje, came back home in the evening he offered another place for us to have a bath, if we were keen on it. We spent hours talking to him and he shared a lot of insights about the economic and cultural history of the area. It is just fascinating what you can learn from chance encounters. This of course wouldn’t have been possible had we not been forced to stay there because of the punctures.

The next day was a short ride to Kaza. And it was time for us to assess our options. All possibilities of acquiring a new tire were explored and then eventually given up as hopeless. Given that all of Rajan’s tubes were endlessly patched, and we had more or less run out of patches too, the conclusion was pretty much staring at our face. But neither of us wanted to acknowledge it. Eventually we did, and decided that I should go ahead and ride solo to Manali, while Rajan would hike in the higher reaches of this beautiful valley. A Manali meeting was set up for four days later — that is how much time it would take me to ride there, if all went as per plan. Given how things were going till now, that seemed unlikely. Especially now that I would be traveling heavier than before, because I needed to be self-sufficient and carry everything all by myself – tent, sleeping bag, stove, food…

On the ride from Kaza to Losar, there was a constant threat of rain, but fortunately I did not get anything more than a drizzle. There was nothing to eat or drink on the way, even though I passed many villages en route. All the people were busy harvesting peas and none of the village shops or dhabas were open for business. It was not too much of a problem because I had dry rations, and I could treat water that I picked up from a small roadside stream.

In Losar the small guesthouse I stayed in, had a rather pleasant restaurant, done in the traditional Spittian style, with everything laid out on the ground. Unfortunately it was taken over by large group of Israelis, who had converted it into a smoking room. And this was not just ordinary smoke. It was that smoke for which some people are willing to travel all the way to Amsterdam. I ended up being confined to my room, because in Losar after nightfall the outdoors is just too cold and windy.

Desolate Spitian landscape. The Ki Gompa is on the right

Desolate Spitian landscape. The Ki Gompa is on the right

The next day was a big day. I had to cycle up Kunzum la. I have ridden up many high passes in India, so I was expecting it to be though. But it turned out to be even tougher than my expectations. Clearly this has to be among the toughest pass in this part of the world. First of all there is no road. It is not broken tarmac, or patchy tarmac, there is no tarmac at all. In the name of a road you have rocks, boulders, gravel and occasional stream running through all of it. Add to that the unpredictable weather. When it is overcast, as if often is, it can get really cold and windy. I was pretty much wearing every thing I had with me. Thick fleece under the rain jacket, slacks on top of my cycling shorts, my big gloves. And yet I was freezing on the downhill. As if that was not enough it started to drizzle as I started to ride down the pass. The wind picked up and the visibility dropped to couple of meters. On a sunny day, on a good MTB and no panniers, it could have been a fun ride. But on that day, it was really tough.

I had planned to ride till Chota Dhara and camp in the same meadow where I had once camped many years ago. But I could not. By the time I reached Batal, I was really cold, slightly wet and famished. And then there was the threat of a downpour. I did not want to take a chance since I knew that seams of my tent would leak in anything but light drizzle — I figured this just one day before leaving Delhi. After lunch they offered me the luxury accommodation of a trap stretched on top of four feet walls made of loose rocks. I lost no time in accepting their hospitality.

The ride to Gramphu seemed relatively easy, compared to what I had encountered the previous day. Even though there was still no road. Any ten or twelve feet wide track of boulders, rocks, and gravel would still pass as road. And there were many more streams running on the road now. So as you climb up you not only don’t have a road under your wheel, you also have to push against water rushing downstream. All the while you have to try and keep your shoes from getting soaking wet. This is snowmelt and the water is cold. Really cold. If your cycling shoes were to get soaked, it could cause some serious trouble. Some of these stream crossings can get deep and long. There was at least one where the water reached up to my calves and I had to take my shoes off and walk through that one.

Finally Batal. The dhaba, the luxurious accomodations on the right. The first one you see is the one I stayed in. And the river Chandra in the background.

Finally Batal. The dhaba, the luxurious accomodations on the right. The first one you see is the one I stayed in. And the river Chandra in the background.

At Gramphu I was expecting to see the famous Sonam dhaba. But it was gone. The road-widening project had evicted them. They had to move to a lower location, away from the main Manli-Leh highway. I could tell that this was a low ‘foot-fall’ area. Not visible from the main highway, they had lost most of their walk-in customers – car and bike drivers, wanting to take break for a cup of chai or bowl of Maggi.

It was still early afternoon and I considered revising my original plan of staying the night at Gramphu. For once I considered the option of going further than originally planned. I knew I could be on top of Rohtang by late evening. But riding down Rohtang all the way to Manali in the dark, on a windy evening with a threat of rain did not seem very wise.

I made camp instead, and crashed early for the night. I knew if it rained heavily I might have to sit through the night to keep myself dry. I kept hearing the wind all night and the occasional drizzle, but thankfully no real rain. I got up fresh and early, made chai and breakfast, packed the tent, loaded the bike and was ready to leave by 7:00 am.

After days of riding though boulder fields, some tarmac as I approach the Rohtang La, on the Manali-Leh highway

After days of riding though boulder fields, some tarmac as I approach the Rohtang La, on the Manali-Leh highway

Riding up the Rohtang La was not so hard, especially once I hit tarmac. Yes, real tarmac. After a steady uneventful ride up to Rohtang I was welcomed by a hoard of parked cars and tourist riding horses and quad bikes in search for patches of dirty brown snow. I was back to ‘civilization’. But to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how much better the scene was compared to what I remember from couple of years ago. Don’t get me wrong, it still is depressing but it seems orders of magnitude better now.

It was still cold and partly overcast. The clouds would occasionally descend to the road and make it impossible to see beyond a few meters, but other than that the ride down to Manali was relatively easy.

The Johnson Cafe and Lodge offered me a nice off-season deal for their ‘standard’ room. But where I was coming from, that room seemed a grand luxury. The bed was long enough and wide enough for me to really spread out. The bathroom had a ton of hot water. I showered and showered again. I did feel clean but my body continued to be duo-toned – my arms, legs and face were a totally different color from the rest of my body.

The clouds descend and promise to drench me. But they don't. And I ride into Manali mostly dry.

The clouds descend and promise to drench me. But they don’t. And I ride into Manali mostly dry.

Later in the evening when I met up with Rajan I could sense that even though his hike in Spiti was very interesting, he still was disappointed at not having finishing the ride. I could empathise, and would very much have liked him to have finished the ride. However, I must also acknowledge that for me riding solo did not turn out too badly. I really did enjoy it. I think I might even want to do it again. By design next time.

 

Ride stats for Nako to Manali, Himachal Pradesh:

  • 317 kilometers
  • Minimum Altitude: 1812 m
  • Max Altitude: 4569 m
  • Total Ascent: 4156 m

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31 comments

  • Kavita Iyer Chandavarkar September 21, 2014   Reply →

    Such an amazing journey and very well written too… Thanks for sharing Ajay 😀

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thank you Kavita.

  • manasij September 21, 2014   Reply →

    fantastic report. Loved reading the log. This route I will surely do one day solo (like you did).

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thanks. Solo has its own charm. I am sure you will like it.

  • roshan malik September 22, 2014   Reply →

    Nicely documented

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thank you.

  • jayakrishna kayalakal September 22, 2014   Reply →

    enjoyed riding along with you, (with me in an armchair)! lovely pictures! thank you ajay!

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thank you. Been a long time…

  • Rajan Bhatt September 22, 2014   Reply →

    An awesome account of our Spiti trip – thanks Ajay for making it come alive through your words and awesome photographs!
    Looking forward for many more to come 🙂

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Absolutely. Many more to come…
      And thanks.

  • charul September 22, 2014   Reply →

    wow.. what an experience.. i got goose bumps just reading thru.. I am sure u must have surely enjoyed it.. what a ride.. great pics too…

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thanks, Charul

  • Depinder Kapur September 23, 2014   Reply →

    Good photos and writeup. We had better luck with tyre punctures on the same route behind you. I had 4 punctures and teh problem seemed to be old tubes and not the tyre. Deepak and I could still make the trip together. We ended in Batal though and did not stretch till Manali.
    Depinder

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Oh! You suffered punctures too!
      So you cycled back from Batal? Or did you load up on a Jeep?
      And thanks.

  • Manu October 15, 2014   Reply →

    thoroughly enjoyed the write up and awesome photographs.
    Manu

    • Ajay Jaiman November 27, 2014   Reply →

      Thanks, Manu.

  • Sudipto DasGupta July 25, 2015   Reply →

    Great write-up and fantastic pictures! I rode this route in 2007 and your amazing pictures really brought back the memories (though I got good weather and not a single puncture).

    • Ajay Jaiman August 25, 2015   Reply →

      Thank you. It sure is an awesome route, I keep going back…

  • Raman August 25, 2015   Reply →

    Very Well written……Hope to do this soon…..

    • Ajay Jaiman August 25, 2015   Reply →

      Thank you.
      Do share your experience when you are back.

  • Vikash kumar August 4, 2016   Reply →

    well done ajay.. getting inspired by your rides and pics…

    • Ajay Jaiman August 5, 2016   Reply →

      Thank you.

  • Praman Narain Mathur March 22, 2017   Reply →

    Ajay I’m contemplating attempting this trail in June. Can I get your phone number of email address to shoot some questions your way?

    Look forward to hearing from you,
    Praman.

    • Ajay Jaiman April 6, 2017   Reply →

      While I am happy to communicate with you one-on-one, I think that there is a chance that others might be interested in our discussions too. So if you don’t mind, I’d prefer if you post your questions here and I’ll try to answer them to the best of my abilities. Thanks.

  • Oinam Anand May 29, 2017   Reply →

    Thanks Ajay for sharing your story…I’m planning to ride from Manali to Kaza and back. Will be a solo ride. Me and wife are planning to stay in Kaza and explore the area. She will take a taxi and I’ll cycle to Kaza. I have some experience of mountain biking and I don’t want to carry a huge load. Just a back pack (please don’t laugh). I will be glad if you could share the places where I could make night halts. If there are places to stay on the way then I want to travel light and enjoy the ride. Planning to do this in June last week. Thanks.

    • Ajay Jaiman May 30, 2017   Reply →

      This is no laughing matter. It will be amazing adventure. All the best.

      Let me list the places to stay on the way. Keep in mind that my memory is week, and things change. So you must reconfirm with bus/taxi drivers in Manali.

      Listed as if you are riding from Manali:
      – Madhi (lots of dhabas that will let you sleep in. One government guest house that is iffy.)
      – Gramphu (turn-off for Spiti on the Manali-Leh highway). There used to be a dhaba here for years. I believe that it was removed for the road widening. Not sure if it came back. Must confirm.
      – Seasonal dhabas at Chatru and Chota Dhara.
      – Chandra Dhaba, Batal: This is an institution.
      – Losar (after crossing Kunzum La). Guesthouses. Welcome to a world of flushing toilet and showers 🙂

  • Oinam Anand May 30, 2017   Reply →

    Thanks a lot. I will try and confirm before I land in Manali. I guess I need to stuff a good sleeping bag. Thanks a lot again.

    • Ajay Jaiman May 30, 2017   Reply →

      Yes, a very good idea. All the best.

  • Rajat Makkar July 8, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Ajay , I do not have any experince of cycling in moutain area. But i did lot of treks in last few years . Could you please let me know if beginners can go at this place through cycle or not.

    • Ajay Jaiman July 25, 2017   Reply →

      If altitude is not a issue for you then I think it may be a good idea to get some serious saddle time. Go for a few 8-10 hour rides, back-to-back. And see how that goes. That will tell you your answer, I think.

  • trashbucket August 9, 2017   Reply →

    though this was writtenlong time ago ,iam contemplating on doing the himalayan circuit on bicycle,and this is very intresting and encouraging .I am almost 60 years old I have a trek 3700D which I have been using for last three years .but only short distances averaging 200kms a week .

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